The greatest myth surrounding the notion of a good worker rests on the misconception everyone has regarding what constitutes having a good work ethic in the first place. The definitions employers have in mind when thinking of a good worker involves a somewhat contradictory set of characteristics: be assertive, yet obedient; innovative, but reserved; simultaneously equal parts independent-minded, and conformist.
The reason why these sort of schizoid expectations exist among the management class of the workforce is due to the fluid nature of the definitions they work with. The only thing of importance to employers is whether or not the worker is maximizing gains and profits for them, and the proper adjectives believed to have been necessary to accomplish this goal will follow from there (always after the fact), and will be adjusted as situations call for them to be; regardless of whether the call of the current situation contradicts the call of the previous.
Employees, on their end, hold to an equally self-deluded (and self-defeating) model of what it means to be a good worker. Putting aside sheepish mindsets that essentially boil down to tautologies like “good workers do work that please their bosses,” the popular notion of being a good worker for most people is showing dedication to one’s job, and putting in the hard work to prove it. And legions of hard working, dedicated members of the workforce will follow this line of thinking from their first days of employment, up to their retirements, without so much as a decent pension to their names when it’s all said and done.
What is the actual truth of the matter? It’s simply: When it comes to being a good worker, a dedicated employee, an asset to the company, your actual work ethic is irrelevant—it is only the perception of your work ethic that matters. In work, like in most sectors of life, perception is the reality of every situation, be it an accurate representation of the facts or not. If you are seen and referred to as the company wunderkind, despite the fact that your only solid idea/contribution was a halfway decent suggestion over a decade ago (which someone higher up than you on the totem pole mistakenly credits you for) you will be seen and treated as what you are believed to be, not as you are. Likewise, if you have a reputation as the company screw-up on account of one misstep years ago, it won’t matter that you’ve been consistently contributing 100% of backbreaking labor to every project since then; you will forever occupy the lowliest peg of the company ladder, because it’s easier for people to continue to see you as what they believe you to be, than to have to put in the effort to update their faulty perception.
Is this an unfair system? It is human nature, and by virtue of being human you cannot escape from it.
Setting the record straight on a few things, first:
Before trying to define themselves as good workers, the obvious question people ask is what sort of career should I enter to give me the greatest return for my laboring investment? And if you gave your education some forethought, the answer may be as obvious as the question. However, the truth is that most job skills are largely interchangeable, and most educations are merely a formality necessary to be better positioned to get a job in the first place. Hence, you should approach any occupational endeavor armed with the correct understanding of what it means to be perceived as a good worker in said line of work, rather than waste time actually trying to become one.
Having said all that, do not insult either your intelligence, or mine, by asking if this means that one can be a lazy, incompetent worker and still get ahead. The sorts of people who immediately jump to this brainless conclusion are the sort looking to find anything to negate the truth of their wasted lives’ efforts. You understand perfectly well that what’s meant is not an excuse for laziness, but a strategic manipulation of a flawed system in your favor. Which in summary just means that it is simply pointless to waste time on things that serve no greater purpose for your benefit.
Who moved your cheese? I DID, now do something about it!
A key part of this drive to not to waste time is the fact that you should never settle for a job that offers no advancement. While you have to incorporate niceties and diplomacy in your social interactions, your work life will be one area in which a self-serving attitude will be easily mistaken for a healthy dose of ambition. Yes, you will still need to be perceived as affable and likeable from various cliques that make up your fellow workforce, but you will also be rewarded for looking out for yourself first.
Of course, you will never be able to speak of what you are doing in such open terms, but the higher-ups that will enable your professional advancement will recognize it and respond appropriately. The reason being that many of those in such positions are as self-interested as you; meaning that they can and will serve your bottom line, at least for as long as both of your bottom lines align. It’s also why you should feel no remorse at undermining even these actors who at one point helped you, because in reality they were merely using you to help themselves. This last bit is perfectly acceptable, as long as you recognize it and manage to stay one step ahead of them.
This is the core of the topic at hand, though it is easier asked than explained. Many of your breakthroughs in this endeavor will come from the work you put in at the beginning of your career’s journey. It is never too early to reason out who within the structure will be an asset to your professional advancement, and who will be a hindrance, and to map out your interactions accordingly.
Most of the people you see around you will be of no use whatsoever—either towards your benefit, or your detriment—so do not waste time thinking about the sheep meandering about complacently in their lowly positions. The people who are most of benefit to you will be the ones ranked above you. Having said that, keep in mind that while endearing yourself to supervisors and managers is fine, it is also too roundabout of an approach for a long-term strategy. There will always be one boss, or at most a handful of bosses, and this group is the one your sights need to be on from day one, because it is their ranks you aim to join (and, if need be, displace) one day soon.
Dropping the Deadweight:
There is another group of people you need to identify from the get-go of your career: the deadweight. They aren’t always easy to spot, but every job has them, and by the time you do realize which ones they are, the last thing you want is to have tied yourself to them in any way whatsoever. You have to be cognizant of the fact that certain employees are simply not meant to rise anywhere beyond the position they currently occupy, and because association is shorthand all humans use to judge the characters of those around them, you will be perceived as occupying an equally lowly position in the hierarchy if you associate with these kind of people (and, remember, perception is the key to everything here). That doesn’t mean to ignore them, or speak down to them, especially since you may still need their collective support to buttress your own rise upward, but it does mean that you need to draw clear boundaries between yourself and them. If you want to move up, you cannot waste any time on those who serve no purpose other than to keep you down.
You will also encounter those who start out as assets, but then become deadweight as the tide turns against them. This is why it is never wise to place all bets on one game and hope it works out in the end. Humans—being only human—make missteps, and can fall from the favorable positions they once held. And you do not want to be standing too close to anybody when their fall becomes inevitable. This is yet another point where perception comes into play.
Welcome to Backstabberville! Population: You
Give the impression of being on everyone’s side while being on no one’s other than your own. It’s a talent of manipulation that takes considerable skill to carry out successfully, but only because so many people lack the resolve to keep with the script and never get comfortable in any one place, allied to any one person. The best way to accomplish this is to never reveal too much about yourself, while learning as much as possible about the person you are interacting with.
When people disclose information about themselves, no matter how seemingly mundane and trivial, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to you, because they will associate you as someone who knows them—the true them—and will therefore recognize you as someone who they will need to appease out of fear of being exposed. You will never need to say anything about it, or even hint at it; this feeling will naturally overcome them as they realize how much they’ve confided in you. You will suffer from no such handicap, since you will have offered no valuable details about your person to them. And they will not bother to ask for any, because everyone prefers to talk about themselves, while paying no mind to the consequences of their narcissistic solipsism until it’s already too late. This flaw in human reasoning will serve your desires well, if you take care to use it to your advantage.
The best way to ensure that you are taking full advantage of it is by keeping yourself guarded from others. However, care also needs to be taken not to come across as a total outcast, lest you risk leaving yourself exposed during pivotal moments when a consolidation of powers is required.
Go to the company outings, mingle at the happy hour, and overall endear yourself to everyone enough to give off the impression of a well-adjusted person. Although your real goal in doing this is to get a chance to develop a personal rapport with those in the company that can aid your advancement, but by making a habit to attend most of these social events with your coworkers, it will establish you as someone for whom socializing comes easy, setting up a positive reputation around you where no eyebrows will be raised when you do get the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the boss of the company, and charm him or her over to your good graces.
Beware though of the fact that nobody likes an ass-kisser, including the people whose asses are getting routinely kissed. Your goal is not to give the impression that you are subservient to the boss, but a potential equal. When the chance arises, always give constructive feedback, and do it confidently. A good rule of thumb by which to manage office interactions is to speak in exact statements when you want something done, and speak in questions when you want someone else to do something for you.
When an occasion calls for a more passive approach, phrasing your wants as simple questions goes a long way in ensuring that you’ll get your way in the end. Saying something as innocuous as, “Are we still doing it by way of xyz?” is covertly powerful because it plants the idea in the listeners heads that this is the way it must have always been done, whether they were aware of it or not, and will cause them to update their thinking on how they’ve been doing it up to that point out of fear that they have been doing it wrong all along. Even if someone replies to the question in the negative, and goes so far as to insist that you are wrong, people’s innate desire to avoid conflict and confrontation will force them to accept it as nothing more than an innocent question on your part. It might even work to increase your favorability rating with them, since you appear to be someone trying to get to the bottom of how things ought to be handled, as well as someone who welcomes corrections when faced with them.
Another easy way to get your way is to ask, “Are you still going to have that assignment/project ready by this Friday?” since it implication that this is something that they should have been working on all along, and to not accept it now would be to admit to a lack of capability to complete the task—and nobody wants to appear to be incompetent (even if all evidence points to the truth of just that). Overall, this passive form of manipulation to get your way by way of asking strategic questions is admittedly best utilized against those occupying a lower rank or expertise than you in the company. When it comes to dealing with higher-ups a more assertive tone is necessary.
When the boss asks for your input regarding something the rest of the team hasn’t made up their minds about, always have a readymade reply on hand for any situation. This means staying on top of the trends of the industry you happen to be working in, as well as understanding just basic Management 101 talking points that are freely available literally everywhere. Once you throw an idea on the table you assert an aura of authority on your person. Because you are the one that got the ball rolling it will be easy for you to claim ownership of everything that gets added on to whatever it is you proposed, even if the final contribution sounds completely different from what you said. No matter if it’s better than what you initially said, and no matter whom it was that improved on your idea, do not let up the impression that the entirety of the brainstorming session gets credited to you. The best way to maintain this impression in this situation is to speak in firm statements, and to never allow the talk to end without asserting a quick summary on what was just discussed, while adding your endorsement to the plan.
You might be thinking now, “What if it ends up being a bad idea? I don’t want to get the blame for something that wasn’t even really my idea.” But this is myopic thinking. How often does your boss have a lousy idea, only to never have to deal with the repercussion personally? If we’re being honest, probably quite a lot. The same logic must apply to your reasoning, if you are in fact doing everything to climb the ranks of the company. That conversation in which you took ownership of the new path forward for the company is not the last and final word you will have about the topic. Once everything starts coming together on the project, stay alert to the trajectories that are at play, and keep your interactions with the people who matter in accordance to whatever the numbers tell you. This means that if everything is going well, continue to speak of the project as “my project”; if the numbers look like they aren’t working out as well as expected, dilute the responsibility away from you personally by shifting your language to the “team’s project.” Once again, perception will come into play, and whatever is most repeated will become the fact of the matter.
The important thing to keep in mind in all this is that every move you make, and every word you speak, is by design a power play, and power plays come with some amount of risk. Your goal is to reap the benefits when the risk pays off, and minimize the fallout against yourself if it goes bad.
Oh, and one final thing: always be sure to read the tone between the lines of what’s in front on you, and to always be on lookout for subtle clues of what’s really being presented, and the underlying theme being highlighted. Or, to put it plainly: